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A farm and a vision of a healthy earth

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Ibiuna, Brazil

There are no starving babies in this story. No descriptions of ill-functioning health, school or public services. No denunciations of corrupt government officials, nor of massive deforestation in the rain forest.

In short, none of the usual stories from Brazil that appear in the press. Although such stories are bountiful and deserve attention, it is also important to read about things that are working well here.

Enter Geraldo Magela Goncalves, Katia Mayumi Deyama and their two children, Taiyo and Yuri.

Geraldo, Katia and the children live outside a little town called Ibiuna in the interior of the state of São Paulo. They have a rather unusual occupation, for Brazil at any rate: They are organic farmers.

In a land in which much of the farming is large-scale and relies heavily on agrotoxins, Katia and Geraldo work their two hectares of land chemical-free. They grow cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, leaks, cilantro and a number of other vegetables. They have a couple dozen goats, a few chickens and two cows, whose primary purpose is to produce fertilizer for the farm.

They have two hired hands who help them work the garden: Adam, from the state of Minas Gerais and Andre, from the Northeastern state of Pernambuco. The latter, age 21, lives with his 15-year-old wife and their baby, Luis Carlos, in a simple little house right by the garden.

Katia and Geraldo met in 1990 at the University of São Paulo, one of Brazil’s most prestigious universities. A degree from this school is a guaranteed ticket to the good life, a life accessible to only a select few. She studied history and he library science.

How did such degrees lead to a life on the farm? Both look at each other and then respond, “Good question. You know we’re not really quite sure.” Geraldo grew up on a small farm in the state of Minas Gerais. His parents encouraged him to study so that he could have a better life in the city.

Katia, on the other hand, is a “Paulistana” -- born and raised in the city of São Paulo, home to nearly 18 million people. Both of them recalled that in their high school years they somehow came to value the country life and, more specifically, a life in the country without chemicals. It was Geraldo who began the farm in 1986, before he met Katia.

He bought a little plot of land in Ibiuna and with the help of his brother began to raise bees and goats, making the two-hour commute from the city on weekends. Taking advantage of his position as a librarian at the university, he was able to do a good deal of research on methods of organic farming.

By the time Katia and Geraldo married in 1994, the farm had grown and was demanding more and more time. Later that year, they took a giant leap of faith, gave up their life in the city, the promise of leading at least a middle-class lifestyle and moved onto their property in the country. At the time, Katia was six months pregnant with Taiyo. “A lot of the reason why we finally decided to move out here was for the sake of our child,” they explained.

“Even though moving was a risk, we thought that city life, with all of its pollution and violence, is even riskier for the health of a child.”

The two children, ages 2 and 3, certainly seem at home on their farm. Katia and Geraldo have departed from the traditional farm model of the woman staying in the house and taking care of the children. For both philosophical reasons and the sheer demands of labor-intensive organic farming, they both work in the garden. Meanwhile, the children chase the chickens, play with the goats and pull up an occasional weed -- and yes, vegetable -- from the garden.

A city parent might look at the farm and see countless hazards for the kids. Yet Taiyo and Yuri move around the farm with a good deal of fearlessness and a certain amount of grace.

“We do not teach our kids to fear the animals or other creatures. With experience, they learn for themselves to have a healthy respect for the farm,” explained Geraldo, pointing out a peck mark from Chico, the bully rooster, on Taiyo’s back.

At current levels of operation and production, Geraldo and Katia will not get rich, nor will they become poor. The economic advantage of organic farming is that it is practically recession-proof here. Organic produce has a very specific market in Brazil -- in the grocery stores of the rich. Those who can afford the produce will probably always have the money to buy it even when the country is having financial hard times.

The disadvantage of organic farming is that it is labor-intensive. To clear five rows of vegetables from weeds in Geraldo and Katia’s garden takes an entire morning. In chemically controlled, weed-free gardens those hours are available for other tasks or for harvest. Yet Geraldo and Katia believe they have enough help.

Their problem right now is in method. “We are new at this and so make mistakes and lose a lot of time.”

But for Katia and Geraldo, their farm is not just about business; it is about a vision. It is about a way of living and eating that is healthy for humans and healthy for the earth. They see that part of their work is raising awareness. For this reason, they participate in a local project called “Country-City-Life.”

The organization seeks to connect folks from the city to folks in the country. The organization has a journal, a radio, a recycling center and a cooperative that buys products from small farmers. It then delivers and sells the goods in the city, giving back to the small farmers the maximum profit possible. Besides being the organization’s treasurer, Geraldo also takes time to host guests of the organization who come to see his farm.

Although a day of working in the hot Brazilian sun quickly dismisses all romantic notions of life in the country, there still remains a curious attraction. Perhaps it is the simplicity. Perhaps it is the fresh air, blue sky, green trees. Perhaps it is the participation in meaningful work.

A young American married couple, Angel Mortel and Chad Ribordy, moved to Brazil last year as Maryknoll lay missioners. Their occasional column for NCR recounts their experiences.

Use the links below to access the couple's previous letters from Brazil:

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999